BY KARINA PALMITESTA

Want to get a rise out of an editor? Maybe see some steam billow out of an ear or two? Ask whether they prefer editing on hard copy or on-screen. Almost everyone will have an opinion either way—and a strong one, at that.

Many editors prefer traditional markup on hard copy, but the reasons behind that preference tend to be difficult to measure. It’s common for people to claim that they just notice more errors on paper than on-screen, that they read more intently, and that it’s easier to “get a feel” for a document by handling physical pages, rather than smoothly scrolling down a WordPress text window or Word document.

By contrast, editing on-screen has a bunch of tangible perks: no wasting money and trees, no squinting at bad penmanship, no lag time in flipping through dictionaries. Global searches of book-length documents are easy and fast, and find-and-replace features allow editors to clear up repetitive errors in seconds.

On the face of it, editing on-screen seems to cut costs and save time, and this fact is leading cash-strapped and short-handed publications to have editors work exclusively on computers. The way things are going, in ten years, understanding hard-copy markup symbols might be as quaint and relatively useless as children learning cursive in elementary school. That’s fine; the problem is that there’s no one piece of software designed specifically for editorial work that is powerful, functional, and elegant enough to replace the benefits of hard-copy markup.

There are many online publishing platforms and desktop word processors to choose from, but they’re almost all geared towards writers first and editors second. Popular word processing tools like Scrivener, advanced grammar and spell-check programs like WhiteSmoke, and writing software like myWriterTools are all for writers who want to improve their writing as they compose it, or even skip the necessity of an editor altogether by plugging their sentences into cutesy algorithms with names like ClicheCleaver and JargonBuster.

Of the few tools geared specifically to editors, the most notorious is Microsoft Word’s track changes. I can’t count the number of editors who have groaned in my hearing at the mention of it. It’s buggy; it’s ugly; it’s difficult to parse. Instead of the clean, intuitive symbols of hard copy markup—a caret for an insertion, a swipe of the pen for a deletion—all directly under, over, or beside the error, track changes piles up comment boxes in the margins and layers the text with a constellation of dotted lines. It’s difficult to see edits to small punctuation like hyphens and colons, and even harder to follow the flow of large copy-and-paste jobs. And the convention of “accepting” or “rejecting” every tracked edit tends to make the original author either huffy—how would you feel clicking “okay” on every single tweaked comma?—or lazy, breezing through and accepting everything because it’s too time-consuming to understand.

To work around all this, editors tend to cobble together different methods. Some edit on hard copy and transcribe all the markup to the screen, but this doubles the time it takes to finish a project. Some edit on-screen with the hard copy in hand, but constantly glancing back and forth can cause people to introduce or skip over errors.

With all the advanced software available today, editing on a computer shouldn’t be an exercise in frustration. Technology has succeeded in making writers’ lives much easier, and now it’s time to make the editorial process just as painless.

For starters, it would be great to see more intuitive visuals that echo hard-copy markup, so that edits can be placed in the text instead of the margins; less visual clutter in general; more control over “accept/reject” features; and maybe some kind of searchable style sheet that can be updated while editing.

There are legions of editors out there, at newspapers and publishing houses and lit mags and online startups like WORST. They’re juggling paper and plastic, flipping the bird at track changes, tearing their hair out over spell-check, and daydreaming about the perfect editing program.

The thing is, they’re editors, not software developers. Somebody please—PLEASE—build a better text-editing suite. We would flock to it in droves.